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Why You Shouldn’t Use SteamOS, a Really Incompetent GNU/Linux Distribution With Security Pitfalls (Lutris is a Great Alternative)

Posted in GNU/Linux at 4:20 am by Guest Editorial Team

Guest post by Ryan, reprinted with permission from the original

It was bowling night on Wednesday, and between frames, I was reading about SteamOS.

Michael Larabel on Phoronix and plenty of others have blogged about it over the years, and Richard Stallman gave some vague opinions about relativistic harms vs. good that it may do for the Free Software community.

While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with proprietary games, in particular, one of the issues I do have with them is DRM, or Digital “Rights” Management. A better name for this is Digital Restrictions Management, or just “digital handcuffs”.

The industry has tried it on everything from movies, music, video games, and books, but it never stops people from attacking it and eventually winning. On a good day, DRM flakes out and causes problems for people who went and paid for a licensed copy of the program, on a bad day, it makes what they’ve “purchased” completely unusable and worthless.

It also causes perfectly good TVs to malfunction because you tried to plug them into your computer to watch Amazon Prime Video or something, and instead it tells you the screen doesn’t support the latest HDCP DRM version.

In another example, when Borderlands 3 released with that horrible DRM that ran in a virtual machine and caused the game to chug along and crash, and finally (after it was pirated), the publisher removed that form of DRM. Or when Microsoft’s Activation servers occasionally glitch and start telling the user they’re running “counterfeit Windows”.

When a person pays for something, and then gets this, it’s not just an insult, it’s an outrage.

But there are some people, like the fools who used iTunes, and then spent years having Apple telling them how and when and where they could use their music files, then finally could PAY THEM AGAIN for a clean copy, and THEN had Apple delete all of their files without asking and tell them to subscribe for $12.99 a month to Apple music.

These fools may or may never learn that DRM is, at a fundamental level, just a way to cheat them out of their money over and over again.

It sucks to be them, but we shouldn’t join them just because a computer seems “easy to use” or “pretty to look at”. I mentioned earlier, we can make Free Software easy to use and pretty to look at too.

All of these issues aside, Valve, the company that makes Steam, also made “SteamOS”, which is a GNU/Linux distribution pitched as “really optimized for gaming”.

However, when you look at what Reddit users say about it, you quickly find complaints that Valve has committed the horrendous security practice of logging in everyone as the same “user”, meaning even if you have different passwords, it’s really the same Linux account, and none of your files or browsing history or anything is off limits.

You’re all using this same account, which is bad for privacy, and you end up stepping on each other’s toes due to the organizational mess.

They’ve essentially re-invented Windows 98’s concept of “users” for some godforsaken reason.

Moving right along, we see that Valve also sometimes goes more than a year and a half without even patching it for security issues. Nothing wrong with using an OS that hasn’t gotten a security patch in 18 months, right?

Then they complain that while it includes the proprietary Nvidia drivers, they’re usually much older than the ones you could install yourself if you have an Nvidia card and some other GNU/Linux distribution, and due to the unpredictable releases and long periods without any patching, the open source AMD and Intel drivers which are bundled with the OS in every GNU/Linux distro have fallen far behind and may not be up to the task of running current software or hardware.

Then what really made me go “OMGWTF” was when Valve switched the underlying system away from Debian (because $@%@ stability, I guess?) and towards Arch Linux. I still don’t know if they release security updates or not, but it was at this point where I just became completely disinterested in SteamOS. Even for amusement.

But the list of reasons why you shouldn’t use Steam OS isn’t just that Valve designs shitty software that doesn’t give a damn about your Freedom or your security, it’s that there’s a million ways to get things done and this is a classic example of “If you want something done right, do it yourself!”.

These days, it’s not particularly hard to install and configure a GNU/Linux system like Debian or Mageia or the others.

Even if you want to install Steam, it’s not like it’s a “SteamOS” exclusive. There is a Debian package, and a Flatpak.

But what I’ve recently taken a liking to is Lutris, it has concepts like “Runners” and makes installing video games from all kinds of sources (and classic consoles) a breeze.

It’s not _just_ Wine that Lutris makes dead simple to use, either, but my favorite feature is definitely that it can configure and manage games and other programs in Wine for you, without you having to worry about mucking up settings and trying to figure out DLL overrides to make things like DXVK or VKD3D work.

In my Debian 11, I’ve been having a lot of fun playing games when before it was more of a pain in the ass trying to set up Wine in order to do something the right way. In fact, the biggest trouble I’ve had out of a game lately, and I blogged about it, was Fallout New Vegas crashing all of the time, and the NVSE/New Vegas Anti Crash mods are something you’d need to screw around with on Windows as well.

While Steam is proprietary software under a proprietary license which brings in tons of crap and garbage and still often doesn’t work right, Lutris is licensed under the GNU GPLv3.

I’ve installed the latest version for Debian according to the Lutris instructions and paired it with the Wine Development Branch for my “System Wine”, which is currently sitting at 6.19 as of the time I’m writing this.

Every two weeks, WineHQ pushes the latest version into my copy of Debian and I get all of their latest improvements.

But how did SteamOS go so wrong?

Well, it’s not hard to imagine why, for me at least. Gabe Newell is a former Microsoft employee, and everyone there had nothing but Windows development experience when they ported Steam over, and that almost never ends well because they take an attitude of “Whatever gets it working now, just toss it in there.” that they learned from Windows, and well, gross.

Then they decided to do an entire GNU/Linux distribution.

Luckily, their Wine fork, Proton, ends up seeing most of the genuine improvements code reviewed and then merged back into Wine itself.

Years ago, we had a different problem. Wine had been licensed under the MIT X11 license, which is basically one of those “Do whatever the hell you want with it.” ones. A company called “Transgaming” came along and forked it and made “Cedega” for GNU/Linux, and “Cider” for the Apple Mac.

When the Wine project realized that they had made a huge mistake and that this hostile closed fork was competing with them, Wine changed its license to the LGPL v2.1 going forward. Then, Transgaming’s days were numbered. They no longer had any Wine code to swipe, so they did a “go it alone” version of Direct3D and some other things.

For a short while, it worked better than upstream Wine did, but eventually they couldn’t keep up and went out of business.

If Wine was still under the MIT license, Proton would have been another Cedega/Cider. But since it’s copyleft, we get to benefit from any improvements Valve makes. And like I’ve pointed out before, we don’t particularly need any Valve software on our computers.

There are other companies that have treated their customers better over the years, such as Gog.com, and they’re supported in Lutris.

In closing, if you like gaming on GNU/Linux and don’t want to tear your hair out, avoid Valve entirely if you can, or at least ignore “Steam(ing Pile)OS” and install a real GNU/Linux distribution, for crying out loud.

The security mess alone reminds me of Linspire, years ago (original company, under Michael Robertson) saying it logged everyone in as root because security would confuse Windows users, and Hans Reiser’s new file system would have ACLs that made UNIX permissions obsolete soon anyway.

I tried to reach out to Mr. Reiser to see how that’s coming along, but he’s still really really in prison in California for murdering his wife with a knife.

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